10 must-have Linux desktop enhancements

Among the variety of enhancements for the Linux desktop, there are a few gems that will really blow you away. Jack Wallen pinpoints some additions you'll definitely want to try.

If you haven't experienced the Linux desktop as offered by one of the more recent distributions, you don't know what you're missing. Not only is the default desktop a thing to behold, it also allows for the addition of some amazing enhancements. From eye candy to tools that make your work more efficient, the Linux desktop can be expanded to include just about anything you want. I'm going to share some desktop enhancements that will make your Linux desktop experience far better. Some of these tools you might already know (or use) and some of them you might not -- if you find one listed that you haven't tried, install it and let us know what you think.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Compiz

Compiz is to the Linux desktop as HiDef is to the world of television. Is it necessary? Not at all. Will it enhance your experience? Absolutely. Compiz is a compositing window manager that adds tons of functionality to the desktop -- from the stellar Desktop Cube to the various window switchers and everything in between, on top, on bottom, and around the corner. If you haven't experienced Compiz, you have no idea what the PC desktop can really do.

2: Screenlets

Screenlets are tiny applications that live on your desktop and provide extra functionality. Some of these applets do little and some do quite a bit. My personal favorites are the ring sensors (various sensors for your PC) and CopyStack (a stack of clipboards that allow you to select from your clipboard history as well as drag and drop a "page" of your clipboard onto a document).

3: Emerald

Emerald is a window decorator written for the Compiz compositing window manager. This window decorator allows you to extend the look and feel of the Compiz window manager out to the borders of your windows. Why have such a cool looking/acting desktop when your window decorator is the boring old default? You can also use this decorator to fool your users into thinking they're using Windows 7. It will take a bit of work, but it's possible.

4: Cairo

If you like the OS X dock, you will love Cairo. This handy dockbar lets you add plenty of launchers and applets, as well as giving you the option of running with OpenGL effects. It's theme-able, clean, smooth running, and much more stable than some of the other available docks.

5: Top Shelf

Top Shelf is a great little GNOME panel applet that gives you quick access to files you include in the "shelf." With this tool, you can take related files (from completely different directories), add them to the applet, and have immediate access to either the file or the containing folder. It's a great way to work on a project where files are coming from different locations and you want quick access to all of them.

6: Tomboy Notes

Tomboy Notes is a simple note-taking applet that resides in the GNOME panel. Tomboy gives you instant access to all your notes via a table of contents and uses a WikiWiki-like linking system so notes can easily refer to one another. The development team is also working on a system that will allow Tomboy to interact with ALL desktop objects, so notes will not be limited to text or links.

7: KDE Plasmoids

KDE Plasmoids are small widgets that live on the KDE desktop. Many people argued that KDE 4.x was going to fail and that the plasmoids were not the way to go. However, this doesn't seem to be the case, as numerous plasmoids actually enhance your desktop and your work. Some of my favorite Plasmoids are Twitter Microblog, Superkaramba, and File Watcher.


GNOME Do is one of those tools you just have to experience. It allows you to search all of the files on your desktop machine and then perform useful actions on the results. This tool also has plenty of plug-ins that allow you to send emails, files, IMs, Twitter and Facebook updates, and much more. If it can be done, GNOME Do can do it.

9: Guake Terminal

Guake Terminal is one of the coolest additions to your terminal arsenal you will find. I do still use the terminal a lot (I'm old school, so I like the command line), and I like to have a terminal that's not in the way. Guake is a drop-down style terminal you open and close by hitting [F12]. The terminal simply drops down from the top of your desktop and then rolls back up when you are done. It's out of the way, quick to use, and will have you running commands faster than you can say grep!

10: Nautilus Actions

Nautilus Actions is an extension for the Nautilus file manager that allows programs and actions to be run from drop-down and right-click menus from within Nautilus. You can create custom actions to do just about anything. This is one of those enhancements that is limited only by your imagination. Once installed, you will find the Nautilus Actions Manager in System > Preferences > Nautilus Actions > Configuration. Once you start taking advantage of this tool, you will wonder how you ever survived using a PC without Actions.

More favorites?

There are so many ways to enhance the Linux desktop. Some focus primarily on aesthetics while others focus on functionality... and some even focus on both. If you are new to the Linux desktop, you should take your time and give some of these a try. If you are an old-hat Linux user but you have yet to try some of these add-ons, you owe it to yourself to see how far the Linux desktop can go. Either way, jump into the discussion and share your opinions on the ones you try.